The Ugandan position
The Ugandan army (UPDF) has occupied the Ituri district of the Democratic Republic of Congo since November 1998. Rwandan troops supported the occupation until May 1999, when units of Ugandan and Rwandan soldiers clashed in Kisangani and precipitated a parting of the former allies.
The Ugandan government claims its only interests in the Congo are to protect vulnerable borders used by the Ugandan armed opposition. However, it is accused of economic and political exploitation and has come under increasing internal and international pressure to account for actions in northeastern Congo.
The RCD-ML is a client movement, whose leader Ernest Wamba dia Wamba justifies the present occupation as a necessary security measure for a neighbouring country. Wamba also said he welcomed the presence of the Ugandan army in its capacity to train Congolese soldiers and political cadres. The UPDF exerts strict control over the few active Congolese soldiers, including a directive that no guns should be carried. Congolese soldiers guarding RCD members are restricted to compounds. There is some disaffection with Ugandan hegemony, however, within the RCD-ML. Some prominent RCD-ML representatives complain that Ugandan soldiers are pursuing their own agenda, taking sides in the present conflict, “exporting” domestic military corruption and “trying to undermine RCD”.
Initially the UPDF had no directive on the Ituri conflict, and, as a result, was accused of acting as bystanders to massacres. Later, incidents of “mercenary behaviour” led to accusations of it taking an active part in the clashes.
By November, Uganda took direct measures to control the conflict. In late December, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni flew representatives of the local peace talks to Kampala. The group comprised 18 delegates composed of Lendu, Hema, Alur, Ndo Okebo and Mambisa representatives. According to a participant in the Kampala talks, President Museveni told the communities that the conflict had to stop, and there was abundant land in Congo to co-habit peacefully. Representatives say the talks resulted in changes in the RCD-ML administration, including the immediate removal of the controversial governor, Adele Lotsove. Representatives said they also told President Museveni that he should take responsibility for the area he controlled as he was effectively its “foreign president”.
Individual soldiers have been investigated for exploiting interests in timber, gold, diamonds and coffee as well as being hired by some Hema to act as mercenaries in the conflict. Recent allegations focus on a former colonel, Peter Karim, who was dismissed from the UPDF in 1998 for misconduct, and now operates with the reserve force. In Ituri, he is accused of taking coffee and timber for export, and supplying guns. Complaints of mercenary behaviour and opportunism in the UPDF resulted in the removal and investigation of Commander Kyakabale in November, and a new leadership under Commander Arocha. Many of the troops were replaced by December, and more deployed in January.
Redeployment of troops in January increased the profile of the UPDF in villages, but still only consisted of very few soldiers. According to the present commander at Djugu, it is difficult for the UPDF to keep track of groups of fighters in the vast, unfamiliar terrain. The confusion and opportunism of the UPDF in Ituri is well illustrated by an incident between two Ugandan units that took place in September. A southern unit, led by Kyakabale, had been mobilised by a Hema group to attack Kpandrona, described as the headquarters of the Lendu in Rethy. Aware of the advance, the Lendu alerted a northern unit of Ugandans to come to protect the village. There was an exchange of fire and casualties when the northern unit successfully ambushed the southern unit. This was the catalyst for subsequent investigations.
Despite the Ugandan relationship with the Hema, UPDF soldiers have acted on an ad hoc basis since the start of the conflict to protect other victims of mass attacks, including Lendus, Ndo Okebo, and Alur. As a result, units of Ugandan soldiers are generally accepted as viable security. Up to now, the UPDF has not suffered the sort of resentment the Rwandan army has in other areas of Congo: there is more popular distrust of Congolese soldiers.
In February, a Ugandan commander arrived in Bunia to set up a training school for Congolese recruits.
Crackdown on the Lendu
Although not the official line of the Ugandan government, UPDF soldiers in Ituri use “insurgency” to describe the conflict. There are indications that a military operation has been focused on the Rethy area, northeast of Bunia, purportedly the headquarters of extremist Lendu groups. Representatives of the UPDF say security “cannot be guaranteed” in this area. Since the start of the conflict, Ugandan soldiers have been killed and, according to UPDF members, disarmed by large groups Lendu fighters. A source in the RCD-ML claimed heavy weapons were being used by Ugandan soldiers to “dislodge” the Lendu.
Since January, security operations against Lendu communities have increased. In the second week of February, all 55 detainees in Bunia prison were Lendu, and one died of wounds. Based at Bunia airfield, the UPDF also uses a container next to the airstrip to hold prisoners who are taken out periodically and beaten. The six cases of bullet wounds in Bunia hospital, all Lendu, date from January. An unknown number of villagers have been killed in security sweeps described by survivors in hospital:
“There were soldiers who arrived at the village with Hema. We were running towards the mountains, they were shooting and killing. I was separated from my daughter. The next day people brought me her child. My daughter had been killed, shot in the back.” [Adeline Kpakay, a grandmother of bullet-wounded two year-old, interviewed Bunia hospital.]
Displaced people attest to the fact that Ugandan soldiers co-opt Hema civilians in attacks against the Lendu, including handing over suspects. In February, three young Lendu boys aged 12, 15 and 21 were released to the hospital after two weeks’ detention in Bunia prison. Caught by soldiers, they had been handed over to Hema civilians in Ega Barriel for “interrogation”. One had a deep wound on the buttocks where he had been put in a fire, the smallest had been stabbed with arrows in his back and cut on the scalp, and the eldest had rope wounds where his wrists and elbows had been tied behind his back. Asked to comment on the case, Ugandan Minister of State for Defence Stephen Kavuma told IRIN that because of “consistent reports [of abuses] ... we are investigating the whole thing, and if there is such a case, it will be part of that investigation”.
Ad hoc talks between the warring communities began in September under District Governor Adele Lotsove, who was removed from her post by President Museveni in December. She was roundly criticised for having an “inflammatory influence”, and accused of favouring her own Hema people. A Peace Commission was established by the RCD-ML under the leadership of Jacques Depelchin, its minister of internal affairs. Depelchin told IRIN a reduced Commission now continued the work on a permanent basis, but that he was extending contacts to other groups - religious, youth, women and intellectuals. He said he had travelled to affected areas in Djugu during November and December and addressed both Lendu and Hema communities. Killings, however, escalated in December and January.
Peace talks have failed to reach a settlement. RCD-ML leader Ernest Wamba dia Wamba said in February his administration had tried to get both sides to see there was no benefit in fighting “but with not much success”. He appealed for help in resolving the conflict.
Displaced communities and the humanitarian agencies
An estimated 150,000 people have been displaced by the conflict. Humanitarian assistance is minimal, with a little basic medicine and food channelled through local church organisations and women’s organisations. Christian Blind Mission (CBM) and Medair provide some assistance in rural areas, otherwise international organisations say extremist sentiments in both communities block humanitarian access. ICRC is carrying out hospital and prison visits in Bunia and some towns, and has established a house for some 15 conflict-affected children. MSF Holland worked out of Bunia, providing medicine in rural areas, until it was forced to leave in January. Its car was stoned and workers accused of being “pro-Lendu”. Oxfam has successfully maintained water development projects in Bambumines, but agrees the conflict has affected humanitarian access and the working environment.
Local representatives of the Red Cross have remained active in affected villages, but, they say, without any logistical support. In Blukwa, Njango Lombu, who has worked for the Red Cross since 1978, said he had helped organise mass burials, and transportation and collection of bodies. Drodro hospital is being run by two doctors and 15 nurses. Dr Tshulo Ngandju told IRIN the hospital was desperate for orthopaedic specialists, x-ray materials and transport to cope with the number of traumatic machete amputations in the surrounding area. His team - without salary other than community contributions - has managed to save people with injuries so severe they were initially believed dead.
A meeting of some 200 local and international delegates met in Bunia on 11 February to discuss the crisis and humanitarian access. The need for cooperation from all affected communities was stressed, and Lendu and Hema leaders were asked to commit to a written agreement for humanitarian access. United Nations agencies and international NGOs have sent exploratory missions to the area since the meeting.
The displaced are concentrated in isolated bush areas, major trading centres, around hospitals and in Bunia town.
Bunia’s population has significantly increased with villagers seeking refuge with relatives and friends. Every Friday, about 400 people are given two kg of food rations donated by MedAir, through a local women’s organisation, Association des Mamans Antibwaki, in Bunia hospital grounds. Numbers increased in February, with over 100 new cases. The organisation estimates some 75 percent come from displaced villages to collect the rations, and about 25 percent live in Bunia with relatives. Workers say resources are “very limited” and many people have to be sent away. One recipient said she moved near Bunia at the beginning of January when “Lendu fighters” attacked Ngongo village. After reuniting her scattered family, she came to stay with a relative in a one-roomed house that now tries to support 21 adults and children.
In Djugu, the displaced have congregated around the trading centre from different affected communities - Lendu, Hema and Ndo Okebo. Many of the women interviewed said they had to resort to “stealing” from the fields, and were brewing alcohol for soldiers to earn a small amount of cash. Although the Ugandan soldiers and the local administration have directed people to return to their villages, many houses and possessions were completely destroyed, including seeds and tools. Seasonal planting has been affected, which has long-term implications for food supplies and reserves. Some returnees have been attacked as they attempt to repossess their villages and fields, which makes the majority reluctant to leave Djugu. Attacks have also frozen trading between villages, and movement to markets.
In Drodro, a large group of displaced people occupies two church buildings and a secondary school. Some have been there since the early months of the conflict, and are in pitiful condition - infected skin diseases, marasmic and malnourished children, chronic diarrhoeal diseases, vitamin deficiencies, as well as hepatitis and cholera cases. The displaced say there are deaths “every day”. A seven month-old baby was found dead, tinged yellow and suffering from chronic diarrhoea the morning IRIN visited the group. Survival of these long-term displaced people has depended on finding piecemeal work. One Hema man said he cleaned houses for “about 250 Congolese francs, which will buy a cup of tea”. Work in the field and carrying cassava loads pays about 200 Congo francs. Displaced Lendu people said it was getting harder for Lendu to find work because of “resentment” - fields and farms are owned by the Hema in the Drodro area.
To date, many displaced Lendu and Hema co-exist successfully together in towns and trading centres. But there are rural areas where the conflict has caused extreme polarisation, especially around the Rethy area, and in previously mixed villages. Polarisation and hostilities are likely to increase if attacks continue and no settlement is reached, escalating an already acute humanitarian crisis and further complicating humanitarian access.
[Exclusive maps and photos available on IRIN website. For previous IRIN reporting on the Ituri conflict, click here: http://umva.ocha.unon.org/]
The Ugandan position